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Fall TV Preview: Sunday

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Pan Am
New Drama
10-11 p.m., ABC
Remember when air travel was glamorous? No? Then take a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, home to ABC’s Pan Am, a drama about the sexy stewardesses and pilots crisscrossing the globe on the once-luxurious airline. The biggest star of the series — in all senses — is the life-size re-creation of a Pan Am 707 jet, housed in a hangar near the Brooklyn waterfront. On this muggy August day, a string of extras in skinny ties and horn-rimmed glasses are lining up, ready to portray journalists en route to President Kennedy’s 1963 ”Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in Germany. Serving them on today’s flight: star Christina Ricci, who plays Maggie, a Greenwich Village bohemian trying her damnedest to worm her way into JFK’s appearance by flirting with the passengers. ”Can I get you anything else to drink, Mr. Manchester?” she asks one, fluttering the lashes around her saucer-size eyes.

Welcome aboard Pan Am, a period drama set in 1963 that aims to take viewers around the world in retro style every week — all while filming in and around New York City. ”We love the ambition of this project,” says ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee. ”We’re in a world where people have huge TV screens. Pan Am transports you to a world that is delicious.” Given the ’60s setting, critics have suggested that this show, and NBC’s period offering The Playboy Club, are broadcast networks’ answer to Mad Men. The Pan Am team says such comparisons are weak. ”Is The Good Wife comparable to House because they take place in this decade?” asks creator Jack Orman. ”I don’t think so.” Adds Ricci, ”The only thing similar is the time period, and the fact that both shows are shot in very cinematic ways.”

For one thing, unlike Mad Men, Pan Am is based on one woman’s actual experiences. From 1968 to ‘75, exec producer Nancy Hult Ganis worked as a stewardess for the airline, and some of the show’s key story lines — including the Pan Am flight team’s rescue of Cubans in a stealth mission — are taken from real life. While Ganis first toyed with making a film about her adventures, she eventually decided that TV would be the best place for her stories. ”I called about eight of my former Pan Am stewardesses,” says Ganis, ”and I said, ‘Let’s all get together and have a little retreat and I’ll bring a camera crew.’ We took it to Sony and they said, ‘Let’s do this.”’ Eventually, Orman (ER) was brought on to craft the script, and Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing) signed on to exec-produce and to direct the pilot. ”Shortly after we sold the pilot, Nancy arranged for me to meet 20 Pan Am stewardesses of that era,” says Orman. ”After about 20 minutes, they loosened up and started telling stories.”

From that research, Pan Am’s central premise was born: Laura Cameron (Margot Robbie) runs out on her fiancé the day of her wedding and enrolls as a Pan Am stewardess like her sister, Kate (Kelli Garner). Meanwhile, Kate’s been tasked by the government to assist with espionage — primarily because Pan Am was responsible for flying many of the world’s power players. Also on board with the Cameron girls are Maggie (Ricci) and French-born Colette (Karine Vanasse). Flying these ladies all over the world are the arrogant Dean (Mike Vogel, who replaced Jonah Lotan from the pilot) and Ted (Michael Mosley). While the idea of spying stewardesses seems a bit far-fetched, Ganis stresses that the idea is historically accurate. So did she do any espionage in between doling out pillows and cocktails? ”I will never tell! But if you think about it, it was the Cold War, and Pan Am was the only global airline,” she says. ”In fact, we were given the status of second lieutenant of the United States Air Force in case we were captured anywhere, so we’d be protected by the Geneva Convention.”

It was the richness of the material that drew Ricci, best known for edgy films like 1997’s The Ice Storm, to this ensemble drama. ”I wanted to do television for a really long time,” says Ricci, who enjoyed doing guest arcs on series like Grey’s Anatomy. ”I liked the pace. I also really like watching TV. I’m obsessed with House. I like CSI. I love Criminal Minds. We’d been looking for years for something right, and then this came along, and the concept was just something so different.”

Future plotlines will lean heavily on the political turmoil happening in 1963. ”It’s still Camelot,” explains Orman. ”But the pot was about to boil over, and the country and the world are about to shift and change dramatically.” One flash point, of course, was the assassination of JFK, which Orman says the show will address this season. Viewers can expect the ladies to take a trip to Jakarta in the second episode, as well as the possibility of romance between Laura and Ted. (One thing they won’t see the main cast doing: smoking cigarettes. The Disney-owned network nixed the nicotine.) But more than anything, producers hope that each week viewers feel like they’ve taken a first-class international trip — all without leaving their couch. ”If we’re successful,” says Orman, ”there will be a lot of people starting to demand better air travel.” (Sept. 25)Tim Stack